During the previous two years, when Jennalee had been Kyle Milford's girlfriend, she and I had naturally spent considerably less time together than in the five years of our friendship prior to that. So for the rest of that summer, after becoming a couple, we devoted ourselves to making up for lost time. When we weren't doing our respective jobs (I did professional tutoring year round, something I'd gotten into a couple of years earlier primarily because working with Jennalee on her schoolwork had revealed that I was a good natural teacher; and Jennalee worked in one of the department stores at the local mall), we spent every possible moment together. I temporarily put all my academic pursuits aside (normally I almost always had some kind of research going on), and concentrated completely on enjoying being Jennalee Morgan's boyfriend, and on beginning to fulfill my two promises: to make her the happiest person in the world, and to find ways to be romantic.
The city that Jennalee and I lived in wasn't big. For example, it had three high schools: two public and one Catholic. It had a daily newspaper, but the editions were generally pretty thin and concentrated largely on local and regional issues. Our mall was fairly small and had only two major department stores. However, there was a considerably larger city located not far down the lake: it took less than fifteen minutes to go from our outskirts to theirs. This bigger neighboring city had four public high schools, plus three private high schools: one Catholic, one Protestant and one secular. Their daily newspaper was much more like a big city paper. Their mall was considerably bigger and had four department stores. Overall, as would be expected, their city generally had a much larger selection of stores, restaurants, and other urban amenities and attractions than ours did.
In our own more humble burg, we almost always referred to our larger neighbor as the 'Big Town.' During the long period when I could only dream of being Jennalee Morgan's boyfriend, I had imagined at one time or another taking her to just about every place worth going to and doing every activity worth doing, both in our own city and in the Big Town, as well as the surrounding areas.
Now that reality had replaced fantasy, and my love for Jennalee had been set free from its prison, I immediately started indulging every dream about being her boyfriend that I had ever had. During the rest of that summer I took her to all the places I'd ever wanted to take her to, in both of the two cities and beyond, and did all the activities with her that I'd ever imagined us doing as a couple, plus a few more that hadn't happened to occur to me before.
Even the activities we had done together sometimes while we were just friends (miniature golf, for example, or just staying home and playing a game or watching a movie) felt very different (and better!) when we did them as boyfriend-girlfriend. In fact, because each of us knew absolutely that we were and always would be the number one person in each other's lives, even the most mundane moments we now shared seemed special. There was a sort of uninhibited, comprehensive sense of closeness between us whenever we were together that gave us a high default level of excitement and happiness, and greatly enhanced our enjoyment of whatever we were doing at any given time.
One of the days I enjoyed most during the rest of that summer was when we went to the big amusement park that was located about halfway between the Big Town and another even larger city about sixty miles farther down the lake. Our two families had taken a day trip there together at some point during five of the last six summers, leaving early in the morning and returning late in the evening. This year, however, Jennalee and I made the excursion to the park by ourselves.
As with everything else, sharing all the rides and other attractions with Jennalee as boyfriend-girlfriend was significantly more enjoyable than the experience had ever been during the earlier trips to the park with our parents. The high point of the day came when I fulfilled a silly but special (to me) dream about being Jennalee's boyfriend that I'd had for a long time: kissing her while we were stopped at the top of the Ferris wheel. I'm sure that wanting to do that sounds corny (and it probably is), but even though I'm not normal in many respects, some of my romantic ideas are. In any case, when we got up there Jennalee could tell without a word being said that it was an important moment for me, so she went all out to make our kiss as affectionate and romantic as possible. It was an amazing experience having that little fantasy come true.
Another thing that happened during this period was that Jennalee finally persuaded me to become active on Twitter. I'd started an account when she did several years earlier, but until that summer I'd used it almost exclusively just to follow Jennalee and read her Tweets. She often Tweeted Bible verses and little nuggets of Christian-based wisdom she had either picked up somewhere or thought of herself, in addition to general updates on her life and activities.
Jennalee had quickly accumulated quite a few followers, of course. I might have done more with my own account, except that hardly anyone besides Jennalee ever saw my Tweets. So I didn't see much point in doing them.
Now that I was her boyfriend, however, Jennalee made it her mission to get me followers. She encouraged me to share my wit and wisdom (as well as Bible verses, of course), and retweeted everything I did to her own followers. She also repeatedly Tweeted requests for her followers to follow my account as well. This caused many new people to start following me, which suddenly made Twitter a worthwhile activity, especially for faith sharing.
Both during and between all the fun activities Jennalee and I did over the remainder of that summer, we also had conversations about anything and everything a young couple would ever want to talk about. In addition, I often surprised her with a little present, or by taking her to places we'd once visited as friends that had made a special impression on us. I told her over and over in many different ways how awesome she was, how much it meant to me that she loved me now, and how much I loved her.
Jennalee immensely enjoyed every moment of all we did and everything that happened, and reciprocated by giving me her own unexpected presents and moments. For example, one day she invited me into her bedroom, where she played the Avril Lavigne song we had danced to on the day we met. Trying to recreate our dances from that memorable day, and then falling into each other's arms in near-hysteric laughter, was one of the most fun things we did all that summer.
We also continued doing the 'I love you' game from time to time, although it gradually occurred less frequently. It still usually cracked both of us up when we did it, though, and I was pretty sure we wouldn't be abandoning it any time soon.
There's an old saying that anticipation is better than reality. This turned out to be completely false in regard to me becoming Jennalee Morgan's boyfriend: the reality was even better than I'd ever imagined it would be; and as the days and weeks of the rest of that summer went by, the thrill showed no sign at all of even beginning to wear off. Every day was like a new dream come true for me, every moment was as magical as that first day as a couple had been, every kiss felt as wonderful as the first one we'd shared. I thanked both Jennalee and God for all of it from the bottom of my heart, over and over, day after day.
Finally summer ended, and school began again. In one sense the time had seemed to pass quickly; yet in another, not being Jennalee's boyfriend felt by then like a distant memory. We belonged together so absolutely that any other reality seemed not just impossible, but unimaginable. Any slight lingering doubts either of us might have had about being together forever were long gone by the time we walked into Jefferson High School on our first day as seniors.
The school year actually started out with some unpleasantness: though Jennalee was always going to be popular wherever she was, her former boyfriend Kyle Milford (who was tall and handsome and had been an all-conference linebacker the previous year) had also been quite popular at Jefferson, particularly among the jock/cheerleader faction. As a result, there was resentment from some people toward Jennalee for having broken up with Kyle just before he left town. That resentment also extended to me, for having taken over as Jennalee's boyfriend.
The first few of weeks of school were therefore uncomfortable for us at times, both in person and on Twitter (making us thankful that neither of us had ever extended our social media presence beyond that one outlet). Jennalee actually shut down her account for a few days at one point just to avoid the unkind Tweets that were regularly coming her way. Of course, that did nothing to stop the rude remarks and shunning we were both experiencing sometimes at school.
Because Jennalee was so naturally likeable and generally tried to be nice to others, she had little experience dealing with people who actively disliked her and acted accordingly. Even though there were a limited number of adversaries involved, and most of her fellow students still liked her as much as ever, the situation was a difficult thing for her to experience. There were two basic reasons for this: first, because she truly wanted to get along as well as she could with everyone around her; and second, because she liked keeping her life as simple and happy as possible, and this kind of drama brought only complications and negativity.
I, on the other hand, had been picked on and hassled on numerous occasions over the years, especially before becoming Jennalee's best friend (my peers began to hold me in considerably higher regard after that, which significantly reduced the amount of bullying I encountered, although it still happened once in a while even then). I had developed a thick skin about it over time, and could now endure almost any amount of verbal abuse or back-stabbing behavior directed at me without getting upset. Seeing it happen to my beloved Jennalee, however, was another matter entirely: it angered me very much and made me want to strike back.
Jennalee didn't like seeing it happen to me either, but she could tell when I assured her that it didn't bother me for my own part that I was telling the truth. Plus, she was the primary target anyway.
So our individual reactions to what was going on were different; and once again, as had happened frequently during the seven years of our close friendship before we became a couple, our differences allowed each of us to help the other in the ways we needed it.
Because of my experience dealing with bullying, plus the fact that I knew Jennalee better as a person than anyone else in the world, I was able to provide a sympathetic and understanding ear for her, and to assist her in dealing with her feelings. This helped her to stay positive about the situation, which in turn allowed her to help ME by taking the lead in doing what we both knew the Lord wanted: to not only love our new enemies, but to try to turn them back into friends. Only by seeing Jennalee's love and faith and forgiveness and patience in action was I able to control and conquer my anger toward those who were trying to hurt her, and instead yield to God and follow her example.
Leaning on each other and helping each other the way we did during that time took the growth and maturing of our relationship to another new level. So the end result was that those who essentially sought to punish us for becoming a couple only succeeded in driving us even closer together, and strengthening the bond between us even more.
Day after day Jennalee kept a smile on her face no matter what, and kept being nice to everyone, including those who were trying to bring us down. I did my part too, and soon we could feel the resentment toward us beginning to pass. It was apparent that our enemies were starting to accept Jennalee's genuine regret over hurting Kyle. Plus, they couldn't help noticing how much in love the two of us were: it was obvious to anyone who saw us interacting that we truly belonged together. There was also the factor of Jennalee's natural likeability, which was hard for just about anyone to resist for very long, particularly when she was going out of her way to return love for hate. Inevitably, she eventually won almost everyone over again, and things gradually returned to normal.
Then school, like everything else Jennalee and I were now sharing as boyfriend-girlfriend, became even better than it had ever been before.
During the last week of September I decided it was time for me and Jennalee to discuss a particular aspect of our futures. When she came over one evening after dinner for one of our homework sessions, I was ready to bring up the subject. I was seated at my computer desk when she entered my room carrying her book bag.
"Hey, Mikey!" she said cheerfully as she walked over to me. She gave me an affectionate kiss, then sat down on my bed and made herself at home. "What are we going to study first today?"
"Actually," I replied, rotating my chair so I could face her, "I wanted to talk about something else before we get to that."
"Sure!" she agreed with a big smile. "I'm always willing to put off studying, you know that!"
"Yes, I know!" I chuckled, then got serious again. "Don't worry, though: we WILL get to it soon. We've got to get you back to straight A's this year, to make your academic record almost as attractive as you are."
Jennalee giggled. "Aw, that's so sweet!" she said. "I love it when you say things like that!"
"That's why I say them!" I assured her. "Well, that and the fact that they're true. Anyway, speaking of academics, we'll obviously be going to college next year. Since we're going to go together, we need to start thinking about where, and narrowing down the options. That means we both need to figure out what we want to major in."
"You still haven't decided between biology and being a doctor, huh?" Jennalee said. "I wish I could tease you about that, but since I still have no idea at all what I want to study in college, I'd better not!"
"It's a tough decision for me," I affirmed. "As you know, there have been times over the last several years when I've really wanted to do each of them. Biology is kind of my first love academically, learning about how living organisms function. These days I'm most interested in the cellular level, all the amazingly complex operations that constantly go on in every living cell, from bacteria to our own human cells. I'd love to be someone who does cutting edge research and discovers completely new things. However, I also feel that I have the intelligence and temperament to be a really good doctor, and doing that would be using my gifts to directly help people. I like that idea a lot too. I would take many of the same undergraduate courses either way, but I'll want to do a double major plus at least one minor, and one or more of those would almost certainly be different depending on what field I decide to go into. That could definitely be a factor in figuring out ideal colleges for me. However, with some diligent research I can come up with a relatively short list of schools for each of my two possibilities that would be suitable."
"Wow, all those majors and minors sound like a lot of studying!" Jennalee exclaimed. Then she assumed an expression of uncertainty and added, "I hope you'll have a little time left for ME once in a while."
"Don't worry!" I assured her. "You always come first! The truth is I've already been studying a lot of things at college level on my own for a couple of years now, as well as taking as many advanced courses as I can at school. I'm pretty sure I'll be able to skip the lower level classes completely no matter which route I take, once they see how much I've already learned; and with my reading speed and high retention I've always been able to study very fast, as you well know. I won't ever take on any academic load that will keep me from having sufficient time to spend with you, both recreationally and to keep helping you with your own studies!"
"I knew that," Jennalee replied with a big smile, "but thanks for saying it anyway. You're the best boyfriend ever, you know that?"
"If I am," I answered with an equally big smile, "it's only because I have the best girlfriend ever to inspire me."
"Awww," said Jennalee, her nose twitching adorably as she said it, which made me pause for a second and give a little sigh.
"OK," I continued after a moment. "So even though I haven't made a final decision, I can find good options for either alternative. The problem is that I'm not just looking for schools for myself. In order for me to find colleges that would be an excellent fit for both of us, regardless of which way I go, I need to know what YOU want to study. Or would you rather look for colleges for yourself after you decide on a major, and have me work from your list?"
"Nah!" she answered immediately. "I trust you completely on that. Not only do you know a lot more about education and college than I do, but I know you love me so much that you'll turn the whole country upside down to find the very best schools for me!"
"Exactly what I had in mind!" I grinned. "So that brings us back to possible majors for you. Have you decided what field you might want to go into yet? I've asked you about this more than once before, and you've never given me an answer. We're getting close to the point now where a decision needs to be made."
"Oh, gosh, Mikey," Jennalee said in a slightly whiny tone. "I don't know. You know me, I don't like to think too far ahead. I avoid it at any reasonable cost, in fact! But I guess you're right, I do need to figure that out soon. I mean, declaring a major right away isn't required, of course, but not figuring it out beforehand only puts off the decision, and I don't want that hanging over me."
"True, that's good thinking," I agreed. "So isn't there anything specific you can see yourself doing with the rest of your life? Something that a degree would help prepare you for? What would you say your greatest passion is?"
She sighed and shook her head. "I just don't know, Mikey."
Suddenly I asked, "What's the Fall Play going to be?"
"Oh!" she replied quickly. "We're doing the female version of 'The Odd Couple!' It's perfect because we have a small drama club that's mostly girls. Auditions are next week-" She abruptly stopped, stared at me for a couple of seconds, then smiled slyly. "Ahh, I see what you did there!" she continued. "Very sneaky! You're trying to tell me that you think theater is my passion."
"Well, theater is something you've definitely been enthusiastic about for years," I replied. "You've always played a small role in the school plays, as well as helping out with sets and costumes and make-up."
"Yeah, it's fun to be involved in putting on a play without having the pressure of being one of the leads," she responded.
"That's kind of how you live your whole life," I pointed out. "Being reasonably serious about the important things like homework and chores, and then having as much fun as possible while avoiding pressure the rest of the time. Like softball, for example. You love to play in pick-up games, but you've never wanted to be in a league."
"Exactly!" Jennalee confirmed. "I always love how you get me so well, Mikey! In a league, all the other players are depending on you, week after week after week. In a pick-up game, when it's over it's just over. That's so much better to me."
"You're the happiest person I've ever known," I said, "so it's hard for me to criticize your philosophy. But..."
"I hate that word," Jennalee put in with a little frown. "Nothing good ever follows it."
I laughed. "It all depends," I replied. "The thing is, we're not kids anymore. Not little kids, at least. We need to start thinking like adults now when it comes to looking ahead. That's why I think you need to change your attitude about avoiding pressure. First of all, dealing with more pressure successfully is part of becoming an adult. Beyond that, though, sometimes the pressure is really worth it, because the reward is so much greater. Particularly when it involves something you really LIKE to do. So I think it's time for you to move up from the small parts and the crews and get into the spotlight, to really embrace acting as your career choice. You know it's what you love, and it's clearly what you're most talented at."
"You really think I'm that talented?" she asked, seeming genuinely interested but doubtful.
"JJ, how many times over the years have we been watching a movie together, and you've made comments about how one of the actors didn't do something right?"
"Not THAT many," she replied defensively.
"Maybe more than you recall offhand. The most recent one was just a couple of weeks ago, remember?"
"Well, yeah, but ANYONE could see that he shouldn't have reacted so quickly to what his daughter said. It came out of nowhere, it was a total shock. A real person would have been stunned for a second, but he just responded right away. It wasn't natural at all."
"I didn't notice it until you pointed it out," I countered, "and obviously the actors and director didn't notice it either. You may not have a huge amount of formal acting experience, but you have amazing instincts for it, and you've learned a tremendous amount both by doing and watching, in the school plays and from TV and movies. You have a gift, JJ! You get acting like...well, like we get each other! Like I get biology! And it's not just the mental thing. You have such a wonderfully expressive face, and such a beautiful voice. Every time you talk, or even just react, it's a like a little performance. You're the most naturally entertaining person I've ever known. So you have all the tools any actor could possibly ever want! You're even a really good singer, and you took dancing lessons for five years, so you're totally prepared to be a lead in musicals too."
"You really think I should be a starring actor, huh?" she asked, still obviously uncertain.
"JJ, have you ever really looked at yourself in a mirror? In addition to the whole talent thing, you're also very pretty, and extremely charismatic. You light up every room you walk into, and people instinctively like you. If there was ever a person who belonged in the middle of a stage as the star of a play, it's you!"
Suddenly Jennalee's face relaxed and she gave me a little smile.
"You really do believe in me," she said. "I don't even have to ask you to confirm that, because you wouldn't be pushing me to do something that you didn't think I could handle. You think it would make me happy, don't you?"
"I do!" I agreed emphatically. "I've been thinking about this a lot recently, about what you have talent for and what career choice would make you the happiest. No matter how I analyzed it, everything always pointed most strongly to acting, in roles where you're one of the leads in the production. Yes, it's a level of pressure you don't usually face voluntarily; but I'm sure that when you walk out for your first curtain call after your first performance in a starring role, and the audience goes nuts applauding and cheering because you were so awesome, it will be one of the best feelings you've ever had."
She suddenly closed her eyes for a few seconds, apparently deep in thought.
Then she sighed, opened her eyes again and looked me.
"All right," she said, looking happy. "Next week I audition for one of the leads. One of the Odd Couple. And I'll major in acting, of course."
"Great!" I replied, genuinely excited. "And that's exactly what you'll be, as long as you work hard at it." I paused. "By the way, what were you thinking about when you had your eyes closed? The audience clapping and cheering?"
She shook her head. "No," she said. "I was praying - and I'm going to keep praying about it all the way up to the auditions: for the resolve to do this, and the poise to do it well." Then she winked at me. "And to make sure I'm paying attention, just in case God wants to warn me not to do it at all."
I chuckled. "It's always a good idea to be listening for what God might be trying to tell us," I said, "but I'm not worried about that one. God gave you all those gifts, after all! Plus, I think it's a sign that the first play you're doing this for has two main leads. You'll be sharing the starring duties with someone else, so that will be a little less pressure on you. This is all going to work out, you'll see."
"I haven't gotten the role yet," she reminded me. "I might not get it at all."
"Yes you will," I replied confidently. "If you go in there prepared and believing in yourself, no one else will have a chance."
"I'm only going to be able to do this because I can't NOT believe in someone you believe in so much," she replied. "Even if it's me. If you think I can do it, then I have to think so too."
"That's us, isn't it?" I observed. "Always helping each other be better. We did it so many times as friends, and we're still doing it now."
"And we always will!" she concluded.
"Amen!" I added.
"And now," Jennalee continued, "since that matter has been decided, I suppose you want to move on to studying." Suddenly she came off of my bed, plopped herself onto my lap, wrapped her arms around my neck and gave me a big kiss.
"Studying would be a good idea," I said after the kiss ended. I put my arms around her and held her lovingly. "However, that was a pretty serious discussion we just had, and I'm sensing you'd like to take a little break for something more enjoyable before we hit the books."
"Like I said, Mikey," she replied with a big smile, "you always get me."
"As it happens," I responded, smiling back, "I approve of your idea completely."
"I knew you would," she said, "because I get you too!"
"OK then, that's settled," I confirmed. "So just to wrap up what we were talking about: I'm going to start making two lists of colleges that work for each of my choices AND have a top notch drama department. Then after I make my decision, you can eventually make the final choice about where we go. Sound like a good plan?"
She responded by kissing me again, which I took for a 'yes.'
Then all the plans for both college and studying were forgotten for a while.
Over the following days I helped Jennalee practice for her audition. She decided to go for the part of Olive, the easygoing slob, because that character was closer to her own personality than the fastidious, uptight Florence. She also thought that Olive would be more fun to play in any case. She worked very hard on her audition scene, trying to get everything just right. When the day came, she nailed the audition just as I'd predicted she would, and got the part of Olive.
The next day I started helping Jennalee prepare for the eventual performances of the play. I was quite useful in assisting her with the memorization of her lines. Improving the quality of her acting, however, was an area where my contributions were of much less value.
At first Jennalee would ask me fairly often about her delivery of specific lines or speeches, and sometimes about whether she was being consistent and believable in her portrayal of Olive from scene to scene. I could tell her how funny or moving something seemed to me, but I was out of my league when it came to objectively evaluating how good anything was that she was doing. Finally, on the third day of helping her, I responded to one of her inquiries with a question of my own.
"I'm writing a paper for my Advanced Science class about chloroplasts," I said. "Do you think it would be more interesting to emphasize how they contain chlorophyll and the enzymes needed for photosynthesis, or how they synthesize adenosine triphosphate from adenosine diphosphate and inorganic phosphate?"
She stared at me as if I had just sprouted antlers.
"How would I know about something like THAT?" she asked incredulously.
"You wouldn't, obviously," I chuckled, "and that's pretty much how I feel when you ask me these detailed questions about how you should play Olive. Science is my specialty. You're the acting genius here. You should follow your own instincts, and the knowledge and understanding you've accumulated about acting from both the small parts you've played and all the TV shows and movies you've watched. You've been teaching yourself acting all along. That's why you've been able to point out little mistakes in the performances of others sometimes. You know how to evaluate your own acting already, far better than I ever could. I'll still be glad to give you my opinions whenever you want them, and the advice you can get from Mrs. Fletcher at school will obviously be more valuable than anything I could tell you, but you should trust your own feelings above anything else. Don't be afraid to believe in yourself!"
She sighed and shook her head. "This is a different kind of thinking than I've ever done before," she observed. "I always like to get the best advice I can about things, both to reduce the pressure on me and to avoid making mistakes; but if what you say is true - and I trust you so completely that I almost have to believe it - the best advice I can get about doing this part is my own! That goes against all the instincts I've developed for seventeen years! It's taking some getting used to!"
"That's OK," I assured her. "Like dealing with pressure, trusting yourself more is part of becoming an adult, and this is one area where you should be able to get comfortable with that fairly easily, because you know you do have a big talent."
"All right," she nodded. "Trust myself first. Got it." She paused, then continued. "So for now, let's just concentrate on memorizing. I won't ask you any more questions. I'll work out the performance details on my own for a while. Maybe consult Mrs. Fletcher sometimes, but mostly trust my own feelings. Then when it's all in my head and I really know what I'm doing, you can start telling me if anything seems wrong or unnatural. How does that sound?"
"That's my girl!" I replied approvingly with a big smile. "That plan will work, as long as you keep believing in yourself."
"Thanks!" she said, smiling back. "So let's get back to it, then!"
From that time on, Jennalee immersed herself in the play and in her role to a level well beyond any commitment I'd ever seen her make before. She gave every spare moment she could, at school and at home, to studying her script and figuring out exactly how she wanted to play every scene and say every line. This was time consuming, and she soon asked for a leave from her job at the store so she could devote herself even more fully to the rehearsals and to polishing her portrayal of Olive. Eventually I felt compelled to practically force her to take some time to just have fun. This was an amazing role reversal for us, of course, since it had always been her job to make sure MY life stayed balanced.
Despite the pressure she was putting herself under, though, she was clearly enjoying the whole process, and didn't seem nervous about the idea that the success of the play depended primarily on herself and only one other person. She was learning to believe in herself more than she ever had before, and watching it happen was one of the most exciting experiences I'd ever had.
It only took Jennalee a little over a week of intense work to get her lines memorized to her satisfaction. We then began doing full scenes together, with me reading the other parts so she could react to the lines. At this point she began fully acting the role more like she eventually would during the performances, demonstrating everything she'd been working on by herself. Even though I had believed in her talent completely, I was still slightly surprised by just how much depth she was developing in her portrayal of Olive, how hilarious she was making her funny lines (sometimes I would laugh out loud, even though I knew the line was coming, because her delivery was that good), how much genuine, fully believable emotion she was bringing to the more serious moments.
After only a couple of days of this, however, Jennalee told me that as grateful as she was for my help, what she really needed at that point was to spend as much time as possible outside of the formal rehearsals working with Angelica Sims, the girl who was playing Florence, the other lead.
"It means less time with you for a while," she said apologetically, "and I'll miss that; but if I'm going to do the best job I can, this is the way to do it."
"No, it's fine, JJ, I do want that very much," I replied. "It's not like I won't see you at all, and it's only for a few weeks. You have my full support, as always."
"Thanks, Mikey!" she smiled. She gave me a kiss, then left to go to work with Angelica. From then on I didn't help her anymore with the play.
The rehearsals at school were closed to outsiders, and as time went on Jennalee was increasingly evasive about what went on there (which was strange, because she usually loved telling me about whatever was going on in her life). So a week before the first performance I went privately to Mrs. Fletcher, the teacher who was directing the play, to ask her how Jennalee was doing.
"Oh, she's amazing!" Mrs. Fletcher immediately replied with obvious enthusiasm. "I've been trying since she was a freshman to talk her into going for a lead, because I could see while she was playing the small parts that she had considerable talent, and of course she has a lot of charisma too, probably the best stage presence of any student I've ever had; but I had no idea just HOW good she could be! It took a while, she was nervous at the first read-through, but she gained confidence pretty quickly. Then, when we got to on-stage rehearsals, something started happening that I've never seen before in all the plays I've directed."
"What was that?" I asked, naturally very interested.
"Well, during the first on-stage run-through, at one point Jen very shyly suggested to Angelica Sims, the girl who is playing Florence, that she should be saying one of her lines differently, that it wasn't as good as it could be the way she was doing it. She demonstrated how she thought it should be done, and then Angelica tried it that way, and Jenna was right! The line was suddenly much funnier. It was a way of saying the line that had never even occurred to ME. Angelica, who takes her acting seriously and really wants to do a good job, thanked Jenna, and told her to please let her know if she noticed anything else that she could do better.
"That started it. A few minutes later another girl asked Jen about one of her own lines, and Jen again gave a suggestion that improved that girl's delivery of it. It snowballed from there. After a couple of more rehearsals, Jen had become the unofficial acting coach for the whole production. Sometimes it was in response to a request, other times she would just jump in when she thought someone could do something better, but either way the other cast members would listen. They had seen that she knew what she was talking about, and understood that they would look better in the play if they took her advice.
"I probably would have instinctively resented all of it, since I'm supposed to be the director, except that I could see the play getting better and better because of what Jen was doing. Plus, I did contribute something to her growth, because one day we had an in-depth discussion about the Olive character. Jen wanted to understand her better, so we talked about how Olive might have gotten to be the way she was, beyond just what the play reveals, and what her general attitudes about life might be. She really understands that acting is about getting the audience emotionally involved with the story, and especially with the characters, and that an actor achieves that by being as interesting and entertaining as possible while still being fully believable at all times. Again, I've never had a high school student who thought so deeply about the process of acting, and understood it so well.
"Right after that was when she persuaded Angelica to start doing private one-on-one work with her in addition to the rehearsals, and soon they had developed a genuine chemistry. Their characters started to seem more and more real and believable, both individually and in terms of their love-hate friendship. I've never seen anything like it at the high school level, maybe even college. I mean, don't misunderstand, I'm not saying Jennalee's ready for Broadway yet, but she's further on the way to it now than any other student I've ever directed."
"Wow!" I exclaimed in amazement. Now I knew why Jennalee didn't want to talk about the rehearsals: she felt it would sound like bragging to tell me what she was doing, and she was too humble a person to want to do that. "Thanks for sharing that with me, Mrs. Fletcher! You have no idea how good that makes me feel."
"By the way," she continued, "did you, by any chance, have something to do with Jenna deciding to play a lead? I know how close the two of you are. Did you encourage her?"
"I certainly did," I confirmed. I related the basic points of the discussion I'd had with Jennalee about her college major, and about embracing her love of and talent for acting.
"I can't thank you enough, Michael," Mrs. Fletcher replied. "This is almost certainly going to be the best production I've ever directed, and that's largely due to Jennalee; and apparently that wouldn't have happened without you."
"My pleasure," I responded. "Literally!"
"I just hope we get decent sized audiences," Mrs. Fletcher continued. "With all the hard work that Jen and Angie are doing to make this show so good, it would be a shame if we got our usual mediocre attendance level. There have been notices in the papers here and in the Big Town, but we always do that and it doesn't seem to help much. Our best hope for breaking the normal pattern is that someone from our paper is going to be here to see the show on opening night so he can write a review for the Saturday morning edition. If we can put on a really good show that night and get a really good review, maybe that would boost attendance for the rest of the weekend."
"I really hope it works out that way!" I agreed. I paused, then added, "You know, based on what you told me about what Jennalee is doing, I think it would be nice if she got an additional credit on the program, like 'Assistant Director' or something, to more fully describe her contributions to the show. That would look good to the college admissions people too."
"You're right, I'll do that!" Mrs. Fletcher replied. "Plus, I'll also write a letter of recommendation for her, of course."
"I'm sure it will be a very glowing one!" I said with a smile. "Thanks for your time, and for everything, Mrs. Fletcher."
"You're welcome!" she replied. "I'm sure you'll be here for the first performance, so see you then!"